Robarts library

The brutalist of the brutes!

This building has a very special place in my heart.
When I was living in Toronto, I spent many many hours studying in this fortress. The author and semiotician, the late Umberto Eco, was said to have written his novel, The Name of the Rose, in this building, which he also used as a model for the labyrinthine chambers in his story. This building also appeared in Resident Evil, although tripled in scale to serve as an evil fortress.

It was built in 1973, designed by Mathers & Haldenby Architects, and I am convinced that it was designed and oriented to confuse the visitors. The library occupies a 3-acre (12,000 m2) site and rests on an equilateral triangle footprint with each side measuring 330 feet (100 m), its gross area being 1,036,000 square feet (96,200 m2). (yes. it’s BIG.) The building’s plan is an equilateral triangle, one side facing west and the other two sides face northeast and southeast.

Fun fact: While the entire city grid of Toronto sits slightly off axis, this building is oriented to true north. That’s actually one of the first clues that led me to believe that there’s a deeper meaning behind these concrete walls. If you see the site plan, even the landscaping around follows the geometry of the building.

I like to imagine that this building is intended to have its own ‘reality field’ of some sort. When approaching the building, the building towers over you, and blocks any sight of what lays beyond. All you have in your perspective is this massive concrete tower. It pulls you up the stairs and sucks you into the entrances of the building. All three sides of the building look very similar, and if you’re there in the evening, you’ll have to pull out your GPS.

View from mezzannine
Waffle slab structure! Woohoo!
Atrium up to level 4
Study spaces

The study spaces could definitely use a bit of revamping, but I do love working in these massive spaces.

For me, however, the most special part of the building, is not in the main library.

It’s in the Thomas Fischer Rare Books Library, which is housed in the ‘peacock’s head’ part of the building. It’s a six storey tower, or shrine, for rare books. You need special access to get up there, and sometimes I dream of roaming around these bookshelves at my own leisure.

The Robarts Library inspired a conceptual design project, where I explored the role and meaning of architecture through an extended period of time, beyond 100, 1000 years. You can see that here.

Lastly, there have been talks about renovations and upgrades to this concrete monster, but to make that work architecturally with such a dominant facade, is a difficult task! Below is a proposal by Diamond + Schmitt Architects, which creates a 5-storey glass enclosure along the west side of the building, with wood accents and on the interior.

What do you think?


2 years ago

This must be an academic haven

Kit Simonot

1 year ago

Hi Dami,
In my experience, to bring building to life & create a familiar sensation of warmth, a glasshouse extension is an excellent conceptual development to the original exterior. The glass frame allows for the the cultivation of plants, increasing the oxygen output, encouraging a 'relax & recharge' vibe. The purpose of the building remains intact, by improving study space, increased natural lighting & offsets the carbon footprint with an offering to the local citizens. I vote YES!

Best regards,
Christopher Simonot

Backpack Ben

1 year ago

Nice blog you hhave

Keisha Dechaca

1 year ago

This is a good read. Great blog Ms. Dami!

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